Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of CNN Style’s The September Issues, a hub for facts, features and opinions about fashion, the climate crisis, and you.
As part of The September Issues, our special hub dedicated to facts, features and opinions about the fashion industry and the climate crisis, we’ve rounded up some of the leading voices for ethical, sustainable and innovative practices.
Through design, research, activism and building more ethical business models, here are some of the people working to change the fashion industry for good.
Since launching her eponymous label in 2017, London-based designer Bethany Williams has set out to create an alternative system for clothing production, using waste and recycled materials to craft garments that skew towards haute streetwear. For each collection, the 30-year-old collaborates with different charitable organizations – from shelters for former prisoners to drug rehabilitation centers. She enlists help from program participants to work on and creatively contribute to some of her pieces. She also donates part of her profits back.
Williams’ efforts for change have already been recognized: In 2019, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II award for British Design, the Fashion Awards’ British Emerging Talent – Menswear award and was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize celebrating young designers. In January 2020, Williams received a £10,000 prize from the Arts Foundation Futures Awards.
Actress Emma Watson has regularly used her global clout to speak out for a number of causes, from supporting victims of sexual harassment to raising awareness about gender inequality. She has also led the way in Hollywood towards adopting environmentally conscious fashion on and off the red carpet, as well as promoting labels that are committed to working with zero-waste factories, ethically sourced materials and cruelty-free practices. The 30-year-old star is especially vocal about Good on You, a campaign and app that rates brands on their production methods and environmental impact, giving consumers insight into their clothing choices.
In June, Watson joined the board of French luxury group Kering, to sit as the chair of its sustainability committee, bringing to the role her “commitment to sustainable development and women’s issues,” the group stated.
Priya Ahluwalia launched her namesake label in 2018 to give deadstock, vintage and sustainable materials new life. The year before, trips to Lagos, Nigeria, and to Panipat, India, set the 27-year-old designer on the path to sustainable fashion. In Lagos, she noticed how a lot of people were wearing second-hand clothing. Then in Panipat, Asia’s biggest textile recycling hub, she saw first-hand where the huge amount of discarded clothes from Western countries is turned into recycled cloth. Ahluwalia documented her trip to India with a photobook and clothing collection called “Sweet Lassi.”
A mix of sportswear, tailoring and knitwear, Ahluwalia’s collections draw from her dual Indian-Nigerian heritage and London roots, and are crafted in factories that employ and fairly pay women in rural India. To date, she has won the 2019 H&M Design Award, created a capsule collection with UK retailer Browns, and was chosen as one of eight finalists for this year’s LVMH Prize.
Founder of Slow Factory
Lebanese-Canadian Céline Semaan founded her Slow Factory label to sell products in order to raise awareness about issues such as global warming and the global refugee crisis. Since its inception in 2012, the project has turned into a design lab working with companies, NGOs and academics to research and implement sustainability initiatives. The goal is to create a framework of transparency in the fashion sector, as well as improving fashion literacy across the industry.
In 2018, Semaan launched a series of conferences called Study Hall, with the aim to bring environmental sustainability and social actions to focus. Held annually in different cities around the world, the open forums bring together figures from different industries – from fashion designer Dapper Dan to athlete Nora Vasconcellos – for panel discussions on topics such as improving the current supply chain to becoming climate positive, with actionable takeaways for bettering the sector.
Fashion and culture journalist
For much of her career Paris-based Dana Thomas had been exposing the good and the bad of the fashion industry – including its role in the climate crisis. Thomas has recently shared her findings in her latest book, 2019’s “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.” The sharp, insightful investigation provides a detailed view of the environmentally damaging business of making clothes – but also of the people and innovations working towards building a better fashion future.
Thomas doesn’t hold back when examining the who, what and how that have precipitated fashion’s modes of production and consumption; making it one of the most polluting industries. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Through her writing, the American journalist is also keen to show readers a way out – or at least point towards what’s needed to act for change.
After launching her brand in London in 2007 and relocating it to Abuja in 2012, Nigerian designer Nkwo Onwuka has emerged at the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement in Africa. Incorporating traditional fabrics and local weaving techniques, the designer only employs local artisans and small-scale manufacturers (located across the continent) in her supply chain, in an effort to grow Africa’s fashion ecosystem at home.
All of Nkwo’s pieces are limited edition, made from end-of-line fabrics, upcycled denim, local cotton, and what Onwuka calls Dakala cloth, “a new African fabric” made from offcuts and through a modern strip-weaving technique. Over the past nine months, Onwuka has been honing her sustainability vision even further: “COVID-19 presents an opportunity for reconceptualization and retraining of designers but also of consumers,” she told the UN environment program in an interview. “It means thinking smaller– not a 60-piece collection, but maybe a 16-piece one, that is beautiful and wearable, made with less waste, by workers who are treated fairly.”
Ethical choices and sustainability have long been at the heart of Stella McCartney’s work and brand philosophy. A long-time environmental activist, the British designer was a pioneer when she launched her cruelty-free, sustainably minded label in 2001, and has continued to be one of the most outspoken voices on fashion’s damning environmental shortcomings.
Vegan leather and fur-free-fur coats have become key Stella McCartney pieces, as have her accessories made with materials such as recycled nylon and polyester. Over the past few seasons, she has doubled down on her efforts to create garments that incorporate low-impact or upcycled resources otherwise destined to be burned or landfilled, as well as using alternative fabrics. For her Spring-Summer 2020 collection, which McCartney has called her most sustainable yet, 75% of the materials, including organic cotton, Econyl and hemp, were said to be derived from eco-friendly sources.
Nearly a decade ago, Shanghai-based designer Zhang Na launched Reclothing Bank, an initiative dedicated to ethical design and production, using second-hand donated, upcycled, recycled, organic and China-made fabrics to create clothing made by women who had been previously unemployed. Zhang, who launched her first label, Fake Natoo, in 2008, was chief designer on Hyundai’s Transys initiative to create clothes out of recycled car seat waste, and collaborated with Starbucks, using old burlap coffee bags to make clothes and accessories. 1% of sales from Reclothing Bank are donated to environmental programs in her home country.
Zhang has also called for transparent garment labeling across China. Her ambition to raise awareness about production practices – in a country that is the largest supplier of raw materials to the fashion industry – is no small one; what happens there sends a global message. Zhang once said she found fashion “boring” and “depressing,” but discovering the industry’s sustainability potential changed her mind.
Co-founder and CEO of Bolt Threads
Dan Widmaier is the brains behind Microsilk, a groundbreaking lab-grown fabric that is already being used by brands like Stella McCartney and Patagonia.
Widmaier was a fifth-year synthetic biology graduate student at UC San Francisco when he decided, together with a bio engineer and a bio physicist, to establish Bolt Threads one of the first ventures to spearhead the movement for bio-manufacturing textiles – materials grown from live microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, algae and fungi. That was in 2009, and their first product was Microsilk, which recreates the chemical properties of spider silk to form a biodegradable vegan alternative to silkworm protein. Other bio-materials that Widmaier is developing include a leather-like fabric made from mycelium, the underground branching structure of mushrooms.
Journalist, author and founding editor of The Voice of Fashion
In 2018, Shefalee Vasudev co-founded The Voice of Fashion (TVOF), an ad-free India-focused digital magazine covering topics at the intersection of culture, fashion heritage and arts, with a strong focus on sustainability – including from an analytical standpoint: in February, TVOF released the India Sustainability Report, the country’s first consumer and manufacturer study on sustainability in fashion and retail.
A journalist for three decades, Vasudev was the first editor of Marie Claire in India, and the author of “Powder Room: the Untold Story of Indian Fashion,” a deep dive into the state of her native country’s industry, as well as a sharp commentary on new social behaviors, generational differences, urban culture and what she sees as the compulsions behind India’s conspicuous consumption.
An earlier version of this entry did not give Shefalee Vasudev’s title as author and founding editor of The Voice of Fashion. An update has also been made to clarify she has been a journalist for three decades.
Since founding her brand in 2015, Uruguayan-born, New York-based Gabriela Hearst has been dedicated to a sustainable life cycle and production process for her collections, using around 30% dead stock fabrics to create her clothes. She also uses unsold pieces from previous seasons by integrating leftover cashmere and silk into new designs, and partners with Manos del Uruguay, a non-profit, rural women’s cooperative, to produce her knits.
During New York Fashion Week last September, Hearst staged an industry first: a carbon-neutral presentation, produced with international advisory council EcoAct.
Katharine Hamnett is synonymous with the protest T-shirt. The designer, who established her eponymous label in 1979, was a pioneer in using mass-marketed fashion as a tool for political dissent and eco-militancy. During the 1980s and 90s, she put political slogans in bold type on Ts – examples: “Choose Life” promoting drug and suicide prevention, and “58% don’t want Pershing,” a statement against US nuclear power on British soil.
Hamnett had been advocating for sustainability for years, trying to set up ethical supply chains and change sourcing policies in various collaborations with large companies, like British supermarket chain Tesco in the mid-2000s. But, dispirited by the lack of tangible progress, she eventually withdrew from fashion to focus on activism and charity work. Then in 2017 she relaunched her label, with renewed ethical and sustainable practices. “Sustainability is no longer a left-field notion,” her website reads.
CEO of Global Fashion Agenda (GFA)
Eva Kruse is the mastermind behind the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s most highly regarded conference on sustainable fashion. The former CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week and the Danish Fashion Institute, summit created the summit 11 years ago as a response to the fact that no one from the fashion industry took part in the 2009 UN climate change conference in the Danish capital.
In 2016, Kruse set up the Global Fashion Agenda, a non-profit company targeting the industry to take urgent action on positive change and long-term innovation. Through reports and initiatives like the CEO Agenda, she has helped establish sustainability priorities for the fashion industry, and pathways for adopting them. At this year’s World’s Economic Forum, she presented on supply-chain traceability and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Creative Director, Bottega Veneta
Since taking the helm of Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta in 2018, Daniel Lee has sent models down the runway in footwear made of sugarcane and coffee that the brand said was biodegradable, and released handbags that were 100 percent recycled, FSC-certified and waterproof, thanks to a polyurethane film and microfiber fabric.
The 34-year-old British designer has adopted fully recyclable sets for his runway shows and started exploring other alternatives to leather, a material that has long been synonymous with the heritage brand. “I want to make things that last forever, I’m not interested in anything less,” he told Vogue in an interview last year.
The grand dame of punk fashion, Vivienne Westwood’s environmental agenda includes a broad spectrum of issues – from embracing transparent labor practices and supply chain policies, to taking part in anti-fracking protests and promoting the charity Cool Earth’s efforts to preserve rainforests. She documents her environmental views and activities and shares news stories on the Climate Revolution website.